Mangiamele calls the opportunity ahead “New-stalgia,” or the chance to recreate Bennigan’s intimacy of product. The idea that retro is in again, and his company could take casual dining global through a virtual accelerator. This allows Mangiamele to present franchisees with new options as well.
Meanwhile, virtual isn’t just an avenue to bring classics back to life. “It will also expose new people to Steak & Ale and Bennigan’s that might not have even heard of us,” he says.
Mangiamele sees plenty of potential in REEF’s model overall, which optimizes parking lots to stand up these vessels. REEF raised $700 million from SoftBank last year to bring its value above $1 billion. It grew from 50 kitchen hubs pre-COVID to nearly 300 by July 2021 (there are about 450 ghost kitchens operating today). Just a couple of weeks ago, the company acquired logistics partner Bond, a New York-based startup that offers e-commerce brands delivery and distribution center services. Last year, the two teamed to add Bond’s refrigerated, last-mile delivery “nano warehouses” to REEF’s parking lots. Bond’s delivery couriers collect orders and transport them. Given the labor challenges afoot, it’s another example of why so many companies are turning to partner companies to broaden delivery reach.
“Depending on all the business conditions, and who knows what the future portends, but if [REEF] can continue to capitalize on the availability of the spaces that they need for vessels and they can get the right people and the delivery aspects in place, I don’t think there’s any cap to the opportunity,” Mangiamele says.
And it’s a straightforward concept on the other side for Bennigan’s—one that reflects why Mangiamele and his wife purchased the chains in the first place. “It’s the perfect vehicle and within the strategy that we created years ago,” he says. “Deliver our product to as many people as possible who love our brands.”
He believes virtual success should spur franchise growth. It would give Mangiamele proof for why operators should open a Bennigan’s or Steak & Ale, and just how concrete the demand is.
Speaking broadly about casual dining, Mangiamele has always been fond of saying “the guest never abandoned casual dining; casual dining as a category abandoned the guest.” It was something slow-burning before COVID, and is still a danger area today.
Brands failed to innovate on the menu and beverage side, Mangiamele says. They strayed too far from core values in an effort to reach millennials and younger groups. Turnover was rampant. Mangiamele says chains that have been successful, like Texas Roadhouse, managed to do so by preserving their culture.
“I will not let the integrity of the culture be violated by raising prices,” he says of a recent widespread trend, “by making our guests suffer because we don’t have enough brand knowledge to figure it out. That’s what I see happening in a lot of casual-dining concepts.”
Surcharges on tickets are another reaction he believes “violates the bond that a brand has with their guest.”
“I really think that the guest’s affection will drive more people to the brands that do deliver and that’s why I’ve been pushing this for almost 12 years now,” he says of service and hospitality. “That we have to deliver a legendary guest experience. All the time, for every meal period, for every guest, and also make sure that our teams in the front of the house, back of the house, bar, hostess, are well-trained to deliver that.”
“At the end of the day, look, you talk all around this stuff, but it’s about execution, treating your people right, getting your training right, and delivering on your promise of quality food at a reasonable price point that makes people feel that they got the value,” Mangiamele adds. “And when value is lost, people defect. When value is guaranteed and delivered, people don’t mind spending more money.”
While Bennigan’s has had to reduce operating hours and pivot to offset inflationary and labor challenges, comps are running positive over 2019, he says. No stores closed and franchise interest is picking up.
The brand is even set to pose as the backdrop, or as Mangiamele puts it, “another cast member,” of an upcoming movie “About Fate,” which stars Thomas Mann and Emma Roberts. The romantic comedy largely will take place in a Bennigan’s, Mangiamele says. The timing should align this winter with Bennigan’s REEF activation and whatever might come next.
“I realize I’m standing on the shoulders of those that came before me, like Norm Brinker, and to be running and continuing the legacy of the only two brands that he created and providing literally thousands of team members opportunities to learn this industry, is really, for me, that’s my mission,” Mangiamele says.